David Fincher’s Mank, which earlier this week received ten Academy Award nominations – including leading actor for Gary Oldman, who plays the embittered writer – is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea.
To its critics it is too long, too self-indulgent and too, well, black and white. I mean, who wants to watch a boring old film about a writer?
Well, me actually.
I can see why some critics haven’t taken to the movie. The biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz has been panned for being unwatchable, old-fashioned and, most damningly of all, in the words of the distinguished film critic David Thomson, “a feeble self-indulgence”.
I have watched it several times on Netflix – and it gets better with each viewing.
True, it does help if you know a bit about Citizen Kane, arguably the most famous, if not the greatest, film of all time. And you will need to suspend your disbelief to fully accept the 62-year-old Oldman as the 43-year-old Mankiewicz.
Come to think of it, the 39-year-old Tom Burke plays the great Orson Welles, who was 25 when he directed Citizen Kane.
And yes, it is a bit smug at times, referencing obscure in-jokes that only true film buffs will appreciate.
But I am prepared to forgive Fincher all these foibles and revel in his magnum opus’ gorgeous cinematography, towering performances and rich meditations on the inevitable clashes between art and commerce.
It’s not easy conveying the life of a writer in a movie. As Oldman puts it: “It’s not like you are playing an aviator. It’s someone sitting there who’s actually writing. Which, cinematically, isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to watch. And not only that: you’re a writer, lying down. So, it had its challenges.”
I should add a bit of context here. Mankiewicz was hired by Welles to work on the Citizen Kane screenplay. It’s a race against time – he’s only got 60 days to finish it – and, to make matters worse, he is confined to his bed, recuperating from a broken leg.
We see him dictate parts of the masterpiece to his assistant and, in flashbacks, reflect on his tumultuous adventures in Hollywood.
Being a wordsmith isn’t, admittedly, the most glamorous of activities. But, as the actor Ron Perlman declares: “Blessed are the storytellers, because they can bridge oceans, marshal great forces, inspire and instruct, transcend all limits, transform hearts and minds.”
As Fincher shows, stories shape our lives, help make us human, bring order to an often chaotic world. Mank is, unapologetically, a movie of ideas, a heartfelt tribute to, as one reviewer put it “the mercurial existence of the Hollywood contract writer”.
After talkies arrived in 1927, America’s dream factory turned to the country’s greatest writers, journalists and critics of the era.
Mankiewicz and his buddies – the likes of Ben Hecht, George Kaufman and SJ Perelman – suddenly had the run of the place.
In a famous cable to Hecht, Mankiewicz wrote: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
I am a sucker for these kind of stories. I am a sucker for these kind of films. This is why some of my favourite movies are about writers. In Sunset Boulevard, unemployed screenwriter William Holden is hired to write a comeback role for Gloria Swanson.
In Barton Fink, John Turturro struggles with writing a wrestling movie. In Adaptation, Nicolas Cage dictates his well-chosen words into a recording device.
I suppose I am a bit biased, having earned my living from writing for over two decades, but I can’t get enough of this kind of thing.
I have spent half of my life sitting at a desk chewing a pen, or tapping away on a typewriter or a laptop, so allow me to enjoy these fantasy versions of my otherwise humdrum existence. Can’t a humble columnist dream?
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